Composing Tips

Composing Tip #10: Write Idiomatically

The Spring

The Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Write idiomatically for the instrument; write stuff that sounds impressive, but lies well and is relatively easy to play; don’t write stuff that sounds easy but is difficult to play well. Players will praise your name for writing the former – or curse you if you write the latter. Keep asking yourself, would I like to perform this? – if you can’t answer an enthusiastic yes, start over.

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Composing Tip #9: Check with Players

Orchestral Violins

(Photo credit: jimcullenaus)

No matter how many times you have written for any particular instrument, always check with players about the capabilities of that instruments before you write, while you are writing, and check every note out in detail with them afterward. You will always learn something new, and sometimes tiny changes make huge differences in playability.

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Composing Tip #8: Write for Children

Faroe stamp 110 europe cept 1985 - year of the...

Write music that children can play. Anyone can write ridiculously difficult music; it takes considerable genius and skill to write excellent music within the strict limitations of young players, and no group needs good music more than they do.

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Composing Tip #7: Fame, Music, and $


(Photo credit: patrick h. lauke)

Write music for famous people, or rather send the best of what you write to somebody who’s doing it in the Big Time.

If they don’t look at it, what have you lost? If even one of them takes a shine to it, they may put it in their repertoire or even record it.

Fact of life: there is in fact very little money in selling sheet music and not much in recording unless you’re selling jillions of copies, but performing rights pay fairly well (albeit much better in Europe than in the US).

You will most likely make your money in this order [make sure you join ASCAP or BMI]:

1. Commissions

2. Performance royalties

3. Recording (sales & royalties)

4. Sheet music

Of course, you don’t write for the money. You write because you have to. Because it is who you are. Because it feels so good.

But musicians still have to eat. It’s nice to compose, to create, but it’s ok to make some $ from it, too.

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Composing Tip #6: Be Specific

Art Relecting Art, Reflecting on Art

(Photo credit: cobalt123)

Write music for people you know. Write it for their specific needs and abilities.

Write for specific occasions: recitals, recordings, weddings, funerals, supermarket openings, etc.

The best way to write a piece that has universal appeal is to write for a very specific time, place, and person.

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Composing Tip #5: Go Exploring

A steelband in Port of Spain in the early 1950s

Explore writing music in many styles, for many instrumentations, including a lot of ‘nonclassical’. Can you write a big band chart? A steel drum band? A jingle for a Coke commercial? A sports broadcast fanfare? A horror movie soundtrack? Aliens landing? Double concerto for bass clarinet and marimba?

Everything you learn from wildly disparate sources will cross-pollinate with everything else you learn and make your music unique and interesting and you highly versatile and ready for anything.

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Composing Tip #4: Embrace the Unfamililar

MUSIC: 200603-200803 Listening History Graph

(Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

Spend at least as much time listening to unfamiliar music as you do studying scores, trying to figure out what characterizes it, or better, trying to write an emulation of it. Failing to achieve a flawless copy is perfectly fine – you have possibly invented something new and have certainly learned a lot in the process.

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Aural Influences: Learning from What’s Not Written Down

The video of the piece below is an example of a piece that come from Composing Tip #3, below. The piece arose from the confluence of several experiences. At the time I was working on jazz guitar, and went to a three-day jazz workshop in Tübingen, Germany that was sponsored by the publisher Advance Music. It was a terrific workshop and I still remember (this was, oh, over twenty years ago) great talks and performances by Bill Dobbins, Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid, Bobby Watson, Steve Erquiaga (guitar), and others. What was most affecting, however, was not guitar. I had an hour free and wanted to fill it with something, so I signed up for Pamela Watson’s Gospel Choir. I am not a singer, but I can find pitches and read rhythms. I was the only native English speaker there – there were (real!) singers from Vienna, Berlin and other places. What astounded me was that, unlike me, they were not new to singing this style. When they started singing, it sounded like they had been born and raised in Mississippi. It was a real treat to masquerade as a singer and be among them. Pamela Watson was a terrific director. We sang some of her arrangements and I am here to tell you: it was probably the single most fun I have ever had making music of any sort, and that is saying something.


Composing Tip #3: The Ears Have It

Motown 4 album set

(Photo credit: vintage_breda)

School can teach you a lot – about composition, about a lot of things, but mostly about things that are easy to write down. As soon as you can, go beyond this model. Learn all about historical written music, but as soon as you can, learn from the living music all around you as well. Learn from especially from music of oral/aural traditions: country western, zydeco, the Beatles, ragtime, field hollers, gospel, reggae, samba bands, African choral music, jazz, garage bands, Motown. These styles haven’t been written down, but that’s a feature, not a bug. There is too much information there to capture in any inky representation. So you just gotta listen.

Listen to the nuance – if you want a challenge, try to notate this kind of music exactly. Listen to jazz singers – how they may start a little before or after the beat, or drag the first part and hurry up the second part or tuplet-ize something that is written in straight quarters in the fake book.

Learn from every kind of music you hear, whether you like it or not. If you can’t find something to learn from in every piece of music you hear, you’re not trying very hard or your attitude needs an overhaul.

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Composing Tip #2: Write Your Own Music

English: Milton Babbitt in Juilliard School of...

After you have written what you need to for classes, contests, tenure committees, commissions – i.e. what other people want you to write – write the kind of music that you like to listen to, music that you would like to play.

This may be very different music than the stuff you wrote for the other people.

Approach composition as 3 people: composer, audience, performer. Besides deciding what you would like to write, think about what you as a performer would like to play, and what would you as an audience member like to hear?

If you subscribe to Milton Babbitt’s dictum, ‘Who Cares If You Listen,” don’t be astonished to get “Who Cares If You Compose” back at you.

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